Britney: Transformation Through A Spectacle

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After watching an episode of Tim Gunns Guide To Style, which revolves around the wardrobe transformation of people who want to change their look, it made me think about how important it is for one to be able to transform into roles and how a fashion transformation impacts his/her overall life. By transforming, people are able to gain more cultural and social capital, increase relationships, improve self-confidence.

Transformation can be defined as the process of change in terms of appearance, character and beliefs. Fashion transformation is about more than fashion; it is about growing up and escaping from a previous representation and transforming into something else, possibly a spectacle.

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According to Elizabeth Wilson, “Fashion is dress in which the key feature is rapid and continual changing of styles. Fashion, in a sense is change, and in modern western societies no clothes are outside fashion”(3) so it is evident that transformation has always been an integral part in keeping culture interesting in terms of appearance and beliefs. Looking back at the female pop singer, Britney Spears, we can trace her transformation through her stage outfits. She started off as the girl next door and has transformed herself into more daring looks making her a spectacle. As we all know, clothes are semiotically rich so each costume within a concert will carry with it meanings.

Britney Spears has always been known for her over the top performances rather than her distinct vocal abilities. She started off by being part of The Mickey Mouse Club and has transformed herself into having a residency in Planet Hollywood, in Las Vegas. Britney used her resources, the financial capital she had acquired as well as the cultural capital associated with her, to progress in her career. Cultural capital can be described as knowledge and taste one possesses that is usually produced by social and economic surroundings. Bourdieu writes “A work of art has meaning and interest only for someone who possesses the cultural competence, that is, the code into which it is encoded.” (2)

After achieving two full years of success with well-known singles as “Oops I Did It Again” and “Baby One More Time” in 2000-2001, Britney Spears wanted to escape the girl next door image and transform herself professionally and personally. What greater way to do this than put on a memorable MTV VMA performance! Spears performed her single “Slave 4 U” at the 2001 MTV VMA’s and this marked her transformation to sexy and exotic for life. She was a spectacle meant to be looked at and not only was the performance something to look at, but also the costume she wore. According to Hebdige, “spectacular subcultures express forbidden contents in forbidden forms (transgressions of sartorial and behavioural codes, law breaking, etc.). They are profane articulations, and they are often and significantly defined as ‘unnatural’.” (91-92). Britneys’ transformation from an ordinary girl from Louisiana to a pop icon was not an easy ride, since she had to transgress from behavioral codes and transform herself into a spectacle that people are willing to pay a lot of money to see.

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Next, The Dream Within A Dream tour was the fourth concert tour she had in 2001. Most of her performances were accompanied by extravagant special effects, including confetti, laser lights, artificial fog and snow. Throughout the concert she transformed into many characters, one being the all american girl in her outfit for “Lucky”. She started off by being in a giant musical box dressed as a ballerina but then tore off her tutu and put on a long white satin coat. According to Bartky, the female fashion silhouettes illustrates how style is relative to time: “Styles of the female figure vary over time and across cultures: they reflect cultural obsessions and preoccupations in ways that are still poorly understood” ( 95) and looking at Britneys’ transformation we can see the cultural obsession with the glam look,the ballerina look, the girl next door look, which are all looks she transforms into throughout her concert.

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The Circus Starring Britney Spears was her seventh concert tour in 2008 and was the most theatrical and intricate in terms of fashion designs and production. Fashion designers Dean and Dan Caten created the costumes. According to Marwick, designers are attracted to certain celebrities based on their appeal to the public since celebrities are “valuable commodities for brands as their endorsement can create trends and spur sales”(4). Britney was seen as a valuable commodity by DSQUARED since her transformation to a theatrical performer directly fitted the fashion style of the designers. In these shows she transformed from a ringmaster to a policewoman to a slave and created a spectacle for the audiences’ entertainment.

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Although Newton talks about the notion of camp within the homosexual sphere, which is a strategic way of acting that responds to a situation that resists the straight world, Britneys’ performances can be seen as camp because they are highly theatrical and performative in nature. He says that, “Both the drag and the queen and the camp are expressive performing roles, and both specialize in transformation”(104) Camp uses incongruity to reach a “higher synthesis”(105) which in the case of Britney would be to reach something amazing the fans can look at with admiration and transform herself through it. Although we cannot talk about Britneys’ transformation in relation to homosexuality, we can say that her performances have similarities with camp since recurrent characteristics are “incongruity, theatricality and humor”(106).

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 Her most recent stage outfits take place in her Las Vegas residency Britney: A Piece of Me that started in 2013 and continues up to today. In one of the calmer moments of her 90-minute show, Spears descends to the stage wearing enormous white angel wings while performing her 2003 hit “Everytime” and transforms herself into an angelic performer. For this show she relies on technology, costumes and props to transform herself into a spectacle and is definitely meant to be looked at.

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The fashion industry is not only comprised of the people directly related to it who produce fashion content, but it also includes those using fashion to support their creative expression. Transformation is key to the success of any creative process because mundane and static has never gotten anyone that far.  Transformation can be achieved in a concert through multiple stage outfit changes. This does not only impact the appearance of the performer, but also the impetus of the performance since a spectacle can be created. It is important for artists to have many sides and portrayals in concerts in order to keep the audience interested and surprised but it is important to stop and think of how far the obsession with transformation will go and whether it will eventually overshadow the quality of the performance.

Works Cited

Bartky, Sandra Lee. “Foucault,Femininity and Patriarchal Power.” Femininity and Domination: Studies in the Phenomenology of Oppression. New York: Routledge, 1990. Print

Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. 1984.

Hebdige, Dick. “The Sources of Style.” Subculture, the Meaning of Style. London: Methuen, 1979. Print.

Newton, Esther. “Role Models.” Mother Camp: Female Impersonators in America. Chicago: U of Chicago, 1979. Print.

Marwick, Alice. (2011). “Conspicuous and Authentic: Fashion Blogs, Style, and Consumption.” International Communication Association annual conference, Boston, MA.

Wilson, Elizabeth. Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity. Berkeley: U of California, 1987. Print.

– Natalia Karavasili

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